One of the longest running debates on this side of the great divide is about how best to work through the thicket of taboos created and maintained by the ruling class. Because so much of observable reality is now off limits, it is nearly impossible to contradict the prevailing orthodoxy and maintain a position in the public square. For example, there can be nothing interesting said about crime, because no one is allowed to discuss the demographic reality of crime. The facts themselves are taboo.
One side of the debate argues that the only way to break a taboo is to break a taboo, so the only way forward to is to talk frankly about these things. In the case of crime, for example, the dissident must always interject the demographic facts about crime into the debate, even if it makes the beautiful people shriek. Since most people know the facts, the shrieking by the beautiful people actually advances the cause. This line of reasoning is extended to all taboo subjects universally.
The other side of the debate points out that the taboo breakers always end up in exile or condemned to some ghetto. In fact, their deliberate breaking of taboos ends up reinforcing the taboo, as no one wants to end up like the heretics. Instead, this camp argues the dissident must come up with clever language that subtly mocks the taboos, but narrowly adheres to the rules. The recent use of the word “jogger’ is an example of complying with the taboo, while undermining it.
The taboo breakers counter that this just results in an endless search for approved language to hint at unapproved things. It is just a form of self-deception, where the clever think they are in revolt when in reality they are just asking permission. The optics guys counter this by pointing out the obvious. The taboo breakers are removed from the process, so in reality their tactic is just quitting the game. Rather than take on the system in a meaningful way, they mutter epithets in their ghetto.
The heart of this debate is the paradox of the marketplace. Contrary to popular mythology, markets eventually end up with a limited number of choices, unless some external agent, like the government, intervenes to maintain a balance of options on both the supply side and the demand side. In the case of the marketplace of ideas, it means the range of acceptable opinion eventually collapses into a narrow range. Inevitably, what the market decides is who will control the market.
Anyone alive in the early years of the personal computer will recall that a walk through the computer section of a department store meant a dizzying array of options. There were dozens of computer makers. It was not just different labels for the same hardware and hardware standards either. The technology was different from one maker to the other, with different operating systems and peripherals. Many companies were searching for the right solution for the home computer.
Eventually, the marketplace “decided” that Microsoft and Intel would control the market place for personal computers. They colluded with one another to drive most everyone out the business. The government did not step in to prevent their collusion, preferring to let the market work its magic. Today, all personal computers are the same. Sure, you can be a weirdo running Linux or Apple, but that is a tiny fraction of the marketplace that is tolerated because they are no threat to the dominant players.
Political opinion in western liberal democracies works the same way. Over time, a few parties have come to dominate, becoming the mainstream. They are not identical with one another and they do have real fights for power. They have simply agreed to a set of rules that will regulate their fights for power. Put another way, they have come to define the marketplace of politics in such a way that ensures they will be the dominant players in that marketplace. Democracy put them in charge – forever.
Now, this is usually when a certain type of critic jumps in and claims this group or that group secretly controls things behind the scenes. Personalizing a process is like anthropomorphizing your pets. It is satisfying because it takes something complex and makes it simple. In the case of pets, the owner gets the satisfaction of thinking his dog loves him for how he treats the dog. In the case of politics, personalizing the process avoids thinking about the systemic issues, which can be complex.
A good example of how the marketplace of ideas operates in a liberal democracy is in this story from Germany. The AfD has been forced to purge one of the leaders of the radical wing, because of his associations with a taboo group. Technically, he is being forced out over not being honest in his statements about those past associations, but in reality, it is about acceptability. The moderate wing wants to engage in respectable politics and that means following the rules.
This is exactly the problem conservatives in America faced in the 20th century when they sought to participate in politics. In order to participate in the marketplace of ideas, they had to follow the rules and remain respectable. In the case of the Buckley crowd, respectable meant agreeing to the prevailing moral orthodoxy. They had to embrace the open society, egalitarianism and the blank slate. Any of their members who refused had to be tossed out in order to maintain respectability.
The taboo breakers look at the optics guys and say, “See, when you agree to the rules you eventually come to defend them against the rest of us.” That AfD story is a pretty good example. In time, the system will eliminate one member after another from AfD until the party is indistinguishable from the main parties. At some point, the party will become respectable. The paradox of democracy will result in the “alternative” for Germany being indistinguishable from the status quo.
The optics side will note that the reason the radicals get purged is they almost always lack the necessary discipline to participate in much of anything. They say and do things impulsively and fight stupid pointless battles. In the case of the AfD guy, if he was as smart as he imagines himself to be, he would understand how this works and be prepared for it, but instead he refused to comport with reality. This is the story of taboo breakers everywhere. They always lose site of the goal.
In reality, there is no voting your way out of the inherent defects of liberal democracy, so the taboo breakers are right to reject conventional politics. On the other hand, politics is always about persuasion. You can only persuade people by addressing them where they are, not where you hope them to be. That means maintaining enough respectability to be able to address them in the public square, even if it is in the shadows. In fact, the edge of the public square can be an attraction, as people like intrigue.
The key to any alternative politics in liberal democracy is that it must be both a critique of the system and operate on the moral high ground. This requires the discipline to sublimate tactics to strategy. It also means policing the ranks to weed out those who simply refuse to place the strategy before their own personal desires. Strategically breaking taboos, in anticipation of the response, can be good outsider politics. Similarly, maintaining enough respectability to remain viable is essential.
In the end, alternative politics in a liberal democracy comes down to attracting high quality people, disaffected by the short comings of the system. If there is a genuine alternative, then there is a genuine choice. This has always been the defect of outsider politics in western liberal democracies. The alternatives are unreasonable and therefore attract the marginal and the unstable. A real alternative will maintain discipline and sublimate tactics to the strategy of being an authentic alternative.
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